Photograph by George Rose, Getty Images

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The international student exchange in the United States has hit record numbers in recent years.

Photograph by George Rose, Getty Images

Opinion: U.S. Should Be Thankful for International Students

New report highlights impact of high school and college students from abroad on economy and world peace.

November is a time when we Americans are thankful and celebrate with family and friends. Many of the guests around American Thanksgiving tables this year will be international students visiting the U.S. on exchange programs, study abroad, and other educational visits. International students are a formidable presence in this country and a resource that we should be grateful to have.

As International Education Week rolled out on November 12, an important annual report was released on global education trends, called "Open Doors." Compiled by the Institute of International Education, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, the survey provides a window onto the world through the lens of numbers of international students coming to the United States (and numbers of American students going abroad).

In an era of competitiveness, these numbers matter. Many Americans may be shocked to learn that the presence of international students in the United States generates about $22 billion from tuition, living expenses, and other educational receipts each year.

The "Open Doors" report is a barometer of foreign interest in studying in American colleges and universities. According to the new document, 2012-2013 saw an increase in international students in the U.S. of 7.2 percent, to 819,644 students from 764,495 students in 2011-2012.

Last year's numbers had represented a 5.7 percent increase over the 2010-2011 tallies. The number of international students in the U.S. has risen nearly 40 percent over the past decade.

Sadly, the number of U.S. students who choose to go abroad, often in their junior year, pales in comparison to inbound students. In the 2011-2012 academic year, a record high 283,332 U.S. students studied abroad, an increase of 3.4 percent over the previous year.

Beyond Economics

The impacts of studying abroad go far deeper than just economics. In addition to attending college programs, young people often come to the U.S. as teenagers on summer programs or high school exchanges and then go back to their home countries enamored with America and empowered to work in their local communities on vital issues that affect all of us like climate change, poverty, extremism, health, and peace. Young people everywhere crave knowledge about the world and ways to turn that knowledge into meaningful action.

Programs for international students tend to emphasize community service, and many require volunteer hours for participants. Since volunteering isn't a custom everywhere, many international students tend to do their first service in the U.S., often alongside Americans. They see civic responsibility models in action, which inspires them to do something when they go home.

As adults later, those same kids who came to the U.S. often start nonprofits or foundations, or become leaders of companies or in government—and remain friendly to America. The peacebuilding work these people learned on exchange programs can make the difference on critical issues that affect their home communities or conflict with other countries.

Positive Examples

Here are a few examples of young people who came to America as high school students for short-term exchanges and programs—two to five weeks—and then returned home to make a difference:

• In Brazil, 18-year-old Renato has started an organization called React and Change, a youth-led organization committed to combatting gender inequality and youth apathy.

• In Serbia, Ester, Maja, and Zsuzsanna raised money at a music event to build a new children's wing at their local hospital.

• In Iraq, Saif, Salah, and Mina organized literacy and environmental awareness projects in elementary schools.

• In Mexico, Karla and Gustavo organized workshops on bullying and self-esteem for peers, in an effort to reduce youth violence and drug use.

• In Libya, 17-year-old Amera is giving workshops on breast cancer and women's health.

Experiential learning through exchanges has resulted in a worldwide network of such individuals and organizations, who are committed to leadership and citizenship. At a time when the global, cultural, and language content taught in many schools is dwindling, these exchange programs bring the world into our homes, schools, and communities, enhancing learning and fostering understanding.

These same principles apply to many study abroad experiences. Regardless of what topic students choose—environmental studies, cultural discovery, human rights, language immersion—they all point to experiential learning as the key to building long-term commitments to positive change in society.

Despite the growth of Internet informal education and the attention to MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), students coming to America and American students going overseas, in person, create bonds that expand the global educational process and forge networks that benefit all of us. The face-to-face connections and relationship building is still vital for breaking down stereotypes and building friendships that can last a lifetime.

International students are a blessing, and we thank them for being agents of change and for making the world a bit safer, more prosperous, and more peaceful.

Christina Thomas is the Director of Operations for Youth Programs at World Learning and The Experiment in International Living. Simon Norton is Program Director of World Learning Youth Programs in Vermont. World Learning is a global organization working in 60 countries to empower a new generation of global leaders through study abroad and exchange programs.